Viewpoint: Localizing juvenile justice spurs national reforms

New York joins other states in transitioning from an institutional, centralized approach to local efforts

By Vincent Schiraldi

Across the country, jurisdictions are moving away from centralized juvenile justice systems and toward smaller, local programs. Local systems are less expensive and are proving to be highly effective. This growing movement took a huge leap forward on September 1, when the state of New York began transferring the responsibility for its court-involved young people to New York City.

The first step in the process is reducing institutional placements of delinquent youth, which New York City has already accomplished without jeopardizing public safety. Between 2002 and 2011, the city cut institutional placements by 62 percent, while experiencing a 31 percent decline in major felony arrests of juveniles. 

The next step, which is now underway, is creating a continuum of high-quality, community-based facilities. All New York City youth who were formerly sent to state institutions for “non-secure” placement are being placed in facilities located in or near their home communities. Toward the end of next year, the second stage of the initiative will bring home all New York City youth confined in state-operated “limited secure” institutions. Instead, they’ll be handled locally in facilities or community-based programs run by non-profits. 

The initiative was shepherded by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Michael Bloomberg and passed the New York State Legislature with bi-partisan support. The approach has many advantages over the traditional state-centralized, institution-based model. Instead of having to travel hundreds of miles to see their child, parents and guardians now will be able to take the subway to visit, facilitating family therapy and helping the young person transition back into the community. 

Youth also will remain in the New York City school system and keep the credits they gain while in placement, making it much more likely that they’ll stay in school. Freeing up funds that were tied to outmoded state institutions will help fund more and better community-based programs to improve public safety and further reduce unnecessary confinement. The initiative also has promoted innovation in residential care, allowing 35 small, home-like facilities to replace a handful of larger, upstate institutions.

New York isn’t alone in reducing the number of young people it confines and in moving away from a state-centralized approach. California, for example, reduced the number of young people locked up in its state system from more than 10,000 in 1996 to fewer than 1,000 today.  Ninety-nine percent of adjudicated youth in California are now housed or supervised by counties, with county costs defrayed by $93.4 million in state funds last year alone.

Also, Wayne County, Mich., had four youth confined in state facilities last year, versus 731 in 1998. When state and county officials agreed to realign care and funds from the state, county officials contracted with five Care Management Organizations, which receive a block grant for delinquent youth in their catchment area. Ohio, meanwhile, launched RECLAIM Ohio statewide in 1995 and now has more than 600 RECLAIM-funded programs in place. Under the initiative, if counties reduce state juvenile placements in a given year, they earn more money the following year.

Between 2001 and 2010 there was a 33 percent decline in the number of youth confined in America’s juvenile facilities, with reductions in 43 states. States around the country are coming to realize that the measure of the juvenile justice system should not be how many inmates you have, but how effective you are in helping them break the cycle of crime.

What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.

Vincent Schiraldi is commissioner of probation for New York City. He has more than 30 years of experience working with troubled youth and juvenile justice systems and is the founder of the Justice Policy Institute. He can be reached at

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